Banka Manneh came to the United States from the small West African country of The Gambia in 1995 to pursue his bachelor’s degree. He later became a naturalized American citizen, but remained a tireless activist within the Gambian diaspora seeking to rid his homeland of then-President Yahya Jammeh, who had ruled the country with an iron fist since 1994. Manneh was initially among the ringleaders of a 2014 failed coup attempt and in 2016 was sentenced to six months in prison in the United States for purchasing weapons with the intent of overthrowing the Gambian government
Below is a section of a phone interview conducted on March 12, 2020. Ellipses indicate when text was removed within answers.
How did it feel for you to be contributing to the political struggle in The Gambia while living and working a normal life in the United States?
When you are fighting a struggle like this, in the beginning you do it because it is the right thing to do, and out of love for your country. But at some point, it becomes personal and you get sucked into it. I think for someone like me, the struggle consumed my life. I was willing to risk it all, to lose a job, willing to lose everything … My first marriage, it ran into a problem and myself and my first wife divorced. In the end I didn’t have any time for family, I didn’t have time for anything apart from the struggle … You become immersed in it. The more these crimes get to you – the murders and tortures – the more personal it becomes. You almost feel like you are racing against time because next time, who else could it be? You feel like you have to do something to stop that. If you get news of another killing, you feel like you failed from stopping it from happening. In the end you get so involved you don’t see anything else, you just feel like this has to be done. It’s a feeling I don’t wish for anybody because it can really be (pause) I don’t know how to describe the feeling. You’re constantly in that state of urgency, emergency, something has to be done. I don’t know, it’s very difficult to describe.
Were you worried about your family back in The Gambia?
Yes, I was. But you know, like I said, the more immersed you become, the more you start to lose your own sense of rationale. You begin to ask yourself, “this happened to other families, why should I sit here and try to protect mine?” Everyone is in the same boat. You begin to see more your country than your own selfish interest or your own people or even your own safety. You start to really lose sight of it completely. You don’t even realize when you are putting your own safety or security or liberty at risk. My sisters were there, my brothers were there, my mother eventually I brought to the U.S., but everyone else was there. At some point I just didn’t care at all. Even my own brother’s son was working for Jammeh … eventually he escaped too because Jammeh attacked him, because of me actually. Even before that attack he would always tell me ‘Jammeh is always raising your issue with me and I’m wanted and you need to slow down,’ but I didn’t care. I kept telling him, ‘Look, if you don’t like that then quit the job.’ You begin to not care even for the safety of your own family.
Did this creation tension with family members in Gambia?
Absolutely! They start to avoid you and disown you! That’s what happens. I didn’t speak to family there for years, and I mean years. There are family members I didn’t speak to until I finally went to The Gambia recently. Before that I didn’t call them, they didn’t call me, and I pretended I was not even related to them. They would be in places where my name would come up and they would sit there like they don’t even know me. Out of fear. I understand.
You had been involved in significant lobbying and civil society activism – what made you get involved in a coup attempt and the potential use of violence?
Desperation. Really, I think that coup attempt had more to do with desperation than anything else. Anybody who knows me knows I don’t care for guns, I don’t own a gun, I haven’t owned a gun in my life. I don’t like that violent stuff like guns and shooting – it’s not my thing. But with our situation, when [Lamin] Sanneh [one of the organizers of the coup attempt] kept reaching out to me, I rejected him. It took him time to really convince me. I don’t even think it was Sanneh’s persistence that convinced me. It was more of after my initial contacts with Sanneh … every day after that, every killing that came to me, every information I got of torture, was beginning to convince me maybe Sanneh is right. The killings and the crimes kept going on and on. At some point you have a breaking point and you felt like ‘you know what, that’s it, something has to go.’ And so for me it was desperation really more than anything else. I was desperate for change. I didn’t even care for the consequence.
You gotta understand the guns that I purchased, the money was put in my account, I even used my own debit card, it’s not like I went and clandestinely – laughs – I literally used my own card and went online. You see how I didn’t care? Somebody who cares about their liberty or security at that point would not do something stupid like that. … It was so urgent for me at that point, I don’t even know if I was thinking straight. No, I wasn’t. I was the one who had most of these guns under my control here in Atlanta. If the FBI were to come into that storage, the amount of guns and ammunition they would find in that storage, I’m sure they would think ‘what in the world is going on with this guy?’ But that’s what I did. I had millions of rounds of bullets, I had many heavy weapons. I’m talking about serious guns. AR-15s and M4s and AK-47s. I had a bunch of them. Pistols. That’s how reckless I was.